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Women in Economics Discipline

American Women and the Economics Profession in the Twentieth century

Les femmes américaines et les professions économiques au XXe siècle
Evelyn L. Forget
p. 19-30

Résumés

L’histoire des femmes économistes américaines dans la profession économique, au cours du XXe siècle, peut être divisée en quatre phases distinctes. Avant 1918, les femmes représentent une minorité à part au sein de la profession mais publient des monographies et des articles dans les journaux professionnels, obtiennent des doctorats en économie dans les meilleures universités, participent aux réunions et rencontres professionnelles et font des carrières d’économistes. Durant l’entre-deux-guerres, les femmes deviennent moins visibles dans la profession, car celles qui s’intéressent aux problèmes sociaux commencent à se diriger vers des sujets connexes comme le travail social et l’économie du foyer familial (home economics). L’emploi des femmes dans le milieu académique commence à décliner de la même manière que décline le nombre de doctorats délivrés à des femmes.

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1Anne P. Carter was awarded the Carolyn Shaw Bell Award by the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) in 2008. This award recognizes “an individual who has furthered the status of women in the economics profession, through example, achievements, increasing our understanding of how women can advance in the economics profession, or mentoring others”.1 In a 2009 interview celebrating the award she recounts the many annoyances and petty injustices she faced as a woman in a male-dominated profession during and after the Second World War. The chair of the economics department at Harvard (H. H. Burbank) met her when she arrived to join the graduate program in 1945, with the statement that “we get a lot of little girls who come here with good grades, but they don’t last” (McCulloch, 2009, 16). Women students at Harvard in 1945, of course, received a degree from Radcliffe College. She remembered that male advisors took their male students to the American Economic Association annual meetings and made introductions, ensuring that they found suitable employment; female students neither expected nor received similar assistance (McCulloch, 2009, 16). Lured back to Harvard from a teaching position at Brooklyn College by Wassily Leontief to work on his Harvard Economic Research Project, she negotiated a job for her husband on the project only to find that her “trailing spouse” was to be paid significantly more than she was (McCulloch, 2009, 16). After twenty years at Harvard where she never felt welcome, she was ultimately turned down for tenure and left for Brandeis (McCulloch, 2009, 16). These stories, told by a high-achieving woman economist, are representative of the social and institutional context in which American women built careers as academic economists in a less than welcoming field in the 1950s and 1960s.

2The history of American women economists in the economics profession during the twentieth century can be divided into four phases. The earliest women, those writing before the end of the First World War, represented a distinct minority within the profession but nevertheless participated in professional conferences, received advanced degrees in economics, and published books, articles and monographs on topics similar to those that attracted their male colleagues. Between the two wars, new professional training in social work and home economics attracted many women writing about economic and social issues away from careers as academic economists. Doctorates in economics awarded to women fell from 8.5% of the total in the 1920s to 4.2% in the 1950s (Chamberlain, 1988, 227). In the third phase, women such as Anne Carter increasingly took positions alongside men in the profession, winning academic appointments and publishing research notwithstanding the social pressures many faced to focus on family matters and the preferential treatment afforded male colleagues. By the 1970s, women increasingly demanded professional regard and working conditions similar to those enjoyed by their male colleagues and, as their representation within the profession began to grow, they began to take their places as professionals alongside male peers.

1. The Prehistory

3Women economists were present and publishing from the very beginnings of the American Economic Association. The earliest historical literature tended to underestimate the number of women in the profession. William Baumol, in a 1985 essay on the history of the American Economic Review, noticed that a few women were contributing to the literature, but argued that their topics were predominantly focused on “women’s issues” (Baumol, 1985). The most comprehensive histories of American economic thought—Joseph Dorfman’s The Economic Mind in American Civilization, 1606–1933 (Dorfman, 1946–1959) and William Barber’s Breaking the Academic Mould (Barber, 1988)—underplay the contributions of women. Groenewegen and King, however, documented a much more significant presence, as did Robert Dimand (Groenewegen and King, 1984; Dimand, 1995). More recent scholarship continues to publicize the presence and contributions of individual women (Berg, 1992; Dimand, Dimand and Forget, 1995, 2000).

  • 2 Find entries on many of the women mentioned in this article in A Biographical Dictionary of Women E (...)

4Robert Dimand reminds us that women published extensively in the early years of the 20th century (Dimand, 1995). Edith Abbott2 wrote 19 articles in the Journal of Political Economy between 1904 and 1925, articles in the American Economic Review and books on Women in Industry (1910) and Public Assistance (1940). Emily Green Balch published a monograph on “Public Assistance of the Poor in France” in the Publications of the American Economic Association (First Series, VIII, nos. 4–5) but was not reappointed to a full professorship at Wellesley college in 1918 because of her social reform and antiwar activism –activism which ultimately won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 (Dimand, 1995, 6). Sophinisba Preston Breckinridge published 8 articles in the Journal of Political Economy; Katharine Bement Davis published 4 and Helen L. Bliss, 6. Katharine Coman wrote two books on economic history and a monograph on contract labor in Hawaii that was published by the American Economic Association, as well as articles in Journal of Political Economy, American Economic Review, and the Journal of the American Statistical Association. Helen Sumner received a doctorate in economics from Wisconsin in 1908, and went on to publish extensively in labor history. Agnes Ergeland published 6 Journal of Political Economy articles in economic history between 1900 and 1905. Minnie Throop England wrote several articles on finance in the Journal of Political Economy and the Quarterly Journal of Economics, as well as monographs on the purchasing power of money. Without listing all the women active in the profession before the end of the First World War, it is sufficient to say that women were not invisible in economics (Dimand, 1995).

5Women represented a growing presence in doctoral programs in economics during these early years of the twentieth century. The American Economic Review published a list of “dissertations in progress”, which showed women writing 6.15% of all PhD dissertations in 1912. This rose to a peak of 19.29% in 1920 before falling for the next two decades to 6.94% in 1940. The proportion of dissertations in progress being written by women did not exceed its 1920 peak until well after the Second World War (Forget, 1995). The dissertations written by women focused disproportionately on labor, economic history and social problems; men wrote on many of the same topics, writing dissertations on labor, public finance and economic history. Moreover, women by and large studied at the same institutions as their male colleagues, with by far the most PhDs earned at Columbia with Chicago a distant second (Forget, 1995, 27). Not all of the economics dissertations were completed in departments of economics. For example, many women who earned PhDs at Chicago in this period worked on economic topics in the Department of Philosophy, Psychology and Education. Nonetheless, Emily Balch, Sadie Gregory, Hazel Kyrk and Emilie Louise Wells did graduate work at Chicago. After earning a PhD at Chicago in 1905, Edith Abbott later joined Sophinisba Breckinridge to organize the Graduate School of Social Service Administration at Chicago that hired mostly female faculty (Bernard, 1964, 246–247).

6The expansion of women’s colleges in the US during the first decades of the twentieth century both generated the women students who went on to graduate training in economics and provided academic jobs for these same women. Vassar hired a large number of women among its social science and history faculty (Bernard, 1964, 126). Emilie Louise Wells earned a Vassar baccalaureate before studying at Chicago, and returned to Vassar as a faculty member until her death in 1910. Mabel Newcomer and Ruth Gillette Hutchinson, both economists, joined the faculty at Vassar. Katharine Bement Davis and Julia Lathrope studied at Vassar. Sadie Gregory and Edith Abbott both taught at Wellesley. Emily Balch graduated from Bryn Mawr and taught at Wellesley for eighteen years before her pacificism denied her a reappointment (Converse, 1939, 95). Economic historian Katharine Coman succeeded her as department head at Wellesley (Converse, 1939, 68).

7Not all women interested in economic topics, however, became academic economists. Women economists found themselves increas- ingly unwelcome in many colleges and universities as the 20th century unfolded, and some turned to the new female professions that began to emerge during the Progressive era—social work, home economics, public health nursing and doctors in “female” specialties (Muncy, 1991, xiii–xiv). Emily Balch worked in a Boston settlement, Katharine Coman was associated with the Wellesley College Settlements Association, and Jane Addams became head of Hull House. Home economics and social work were to become increasingly important venues for women economists after the First World War.

2. The Interwar Years

8Despite the growing market of the women’s colleges, the academic employment of women in the United States began to fall after 1930 for all fields as many universities and colleges began to hire only men. In economics, however, the contraction seems to have begun a decade earlier (Graham 1977–1978; Libby 1984, 1987, 1990).

9After 1920, women were writing fewer PhD dissertations in economics, earning fewer doctorates in economics, and filling fewer academic positions in economics. Simple gender discrimination is part of the story. Eleanor Lansing Dulles, who wrote a Harvard (Radcliffe) dissertation on French inflation ultimately published as The French Franc in 1929, published a memoir in 1980 in which she recounts an attempt to appropriate her work. In 1926, while she was in Paris revising her dissertation for publication, she was visited by Robert Murray Haig and James Harvey Rogers of Columbia:

Haig said, “You are here on a small grant and working alone, studying the nature of French inflation. Professor Rogers is working with our group and can do a more searching and complete job. We want you to turn over your notes to us and we’ll carry on your work as part of our comprehensive project.” (Dulles 1980, 100–102; Dimand 1995, 11)

10Dulles refused.

11The social environment, however, is not the entire story. Women began to disappear from the economics profession as part of the general contraction of female academic employment in the period, but this was exacerbated by three developments that accelerated the trend. First, social work started to emerge as an academic subject and drew to it women who saw economics as a way of addressing social injustice. Second, home economics began to grow in importance during this period and attracted a number of women interested in questions of labor and consumption eco- nomics away from economics towards this newly professionalizing discipline. Third, the expansion of federal government employment in areas of agriculture, home economics, consumer affairs and labor offered another, more welcoming, employment opportunity for women.

12Social work acted as a magnet for women economists and, as social work became an academic discipline in the US, it seemed a natural home within the academy for some women. Edith Abbott, after earning a PhD in economics at the University of Chicago, worked to create the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, and later the Graduate School of Social Service Administration rather than join the economics department. Departments of social work welcomed women faculty and students, and women economists increasingly found a nurturing academic environment in such departments. This rising employment opportunity followed naturally from the earlier involvement of many women economists in the settlement movement. Women economists had always been drawn to social work practice and, when the opportunity arose, many of these same women turned to social work within the university.

13Another growing professional opportunity for women was even more significant. In 1862, the Morrill Act increased the number of land-grant universities and colleges in the US. These institutions were a response to the perception that traditional colleges concentrated on classical education and intended mostly to train students for the traditional professions of medicine and law. The new land-grant institutions were designed for students from a broader background, and were meant to offer a wider range of educational opportunities than the traditional eastern universities and liberal arts colleges. Typically, they were characterized by large agricultural faculties because of the large number of students they attracted from rural backgrounds. These universities were called land-grant institutions because the federal government transferred tracts of federally controlled land to the states to be developed or sold to create the new colleges. The most significant of these land-grant institutions were in the Midwest and grew throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. Home economics was an essential feature of these institutions—the feminine counterpart of agricultural education for men—and the discipline grew with the expansion of the land-grant colleges.

14The term “Home Economics” was developed at the first ever Lake Placid Conference held in 1899. The American Home Economics Association (AHEA) lobbied to make home economics available in elementary and high school curricula, and raised money for the expansion of the discipline. Over the course of the interwar period, many federal government acts contributed to the expansion of home economics. In 1927, the Bureau of Home Economics Act was passed, and in 1937 the George-Dean Act increased funding and prestige for the discipline.

15While the teaching of home economics at the primary and high school levels focused on domestic science and intended to make women better homemakers, the movement itself was far more ambitious. Many home economists worked directly with the expanding immigrant populations of inner-cities and western states. The social problems that attracted the attention of women economists early in the century became the special focus of home economists as they moved into the community to work with the socially marginalized. The expansion of home economics as a teachable subject meant that employment opportunities for women in primary, high school and university education grew significantly. State and federal governments employed home economics graduates as statistical analysts concerned primarily with prices and wages. The money raised by the AHEA helped to fund research projects for home economics faculty at land-grant universities and these tended to be empirical investigations that focused on consumer affairs, prices and price indices, social issues including poverty and unemployment, and wages.

16Many women economists seized these new opportunities and, in the process, became skilled statisticians at a time when the economics profession was itself moving towards applied work. After earning a PhD in economics from Chicago 1920, Hazel Kyrk went on to become a faculty member in both economics and home economics at Chicago (1925–1952). She was mentor to a generation of women like Margaret Reid, most of whom moved between the disciplines of economics and home economics and between government employment and academic appointments as opportunities arose. Hazel Kyrk forged a new career path for women economists at the same time that she broadened the Chicago economics curriculum to include consumption economics. Margaret Reid and Elizabeth Hoyt (Radcliffe PhD, 1925) mentored, in turn, another generation of women at Iowa State University (Thorne, 1995).

17Women interested in labour and social issues then faced a clear choice. They could prepare to become economists and hope to teach in the well-established (and very slowly growing) traditional univer- sities and liberal arts colleges that preferred to hire men, paid women less than men, tended to employ women in subordinate roles, and aimed to prepare a limited number of mostly male students for the professions, or they could turn to the newly professionalizing home economics and social work disciplines that offered the possibility of teaching at the rapidly expanding land-grant institutions alongside the certainty that high school or primary school employment was available, as was funding for independent research projects on topics that had traditionally attracted the majority of women economists, and employment in a female-dominated profession that offered the kind of mentoring opportunities traditionally restricted to men. Many women preferred the latter.

18Throughout the interwar period, the federal government expanded its research and administrative capacity and developed an almost insatiable appetite for statistical analysts to work on social issues, labor and prices. In the 1930s, the Department of Agriculture grew increasingly important as marketing boards and agricultural support programs began to grow. This created opportunities for women to do the kind of research that had attracted them to economics in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but to do it outside the traditional university community. Home economists, familiar with agricultural issues and consumer affairs from their backgrounds and training, trained in empirical analysis, and interested in the policy issues of the period, were in particular demand.

19The interaction of these three factors—the growth of the government bureaucracy and the growth of the home economics movement and social work as an academic career—created alternative career paths for women who might otherwise have earned PhDs in economics and gone on to become professional economists. Accommodating environments that valued their skills and welcomed women must have presented an attractive alternative to women who were only grudgingly accepted by an economics profession that did its best to forget they were present.

20Some women, however, continued to work in a variety of roles in the traditional institutions. Elizabeth Gilboy, a prolific writer and well-known in the field of demand and consumer economics, is a case in point (Thomas, 2000). She earned her PhD in 1929 from Radcliffe College and began a long association with Harvard University in the same year. In 1929–1930, “Mrs.” Gilboy was Secretary to the Committee on Research in the Social Sciences, and from 1930 to 1941 she was Executive Secretary. She became Associate Director of Leontief’s Harvard Economic Research Project in 1950 and served as its Acting Director in 1964–1965. This work involved some teaching, but was largely administrative. However, “Dr.” Gilboy taught and advised at Radcliffe in an academic capacity, serving as Graduate Director from 1930 to 1941, worked in the Office of Strategic Services in 1942–1943 and was a consultant to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1960 to 1964.

21For whatever combination of reasons, the visibility of women in the economics profession declined significantly in the interwar period. Academic women working on economic topics, however, became increasingly visible, as did the legion of professional analysts working on issues of wages and prices in the federal bureaucracy.

3. The 1950s–1960s

22If the First World War heralded the rise of new career paths for women in social work and home economics that drew them away from the economics profession, the Second World War created opportunities for some to return. Academic economists did not open wide the doors and welcome women ungrudgingly, as Carter’s comments acknowledge, but the growth of American university education in the wake of the GI Bill, and the growing recognition that women in departments of home economics and in government employment possessed many of the statistical skills increasingly required in economic research, created some opportunities for women in economics departments.

23The University of Chicago was among the first departments to offer women economists work, and the department looked first to the students of Hazel Kyrk for the skills it needed. Margaret Reid earned a PhD in economics from Chicago in 1931, and went on to teach in the Departments of Economics and Home Economics at Iowa State until 1943. Between 1943 and 1948, she worked for the federal government, and in 1948 she became professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1951, she joined the University of Chicago Economics Department and went on to work as a statistical expert with Modigliani and Friedman. Her intellectual circle at Chicago included Rose Friedman and Dorothy Brady. In 1980, Reid was the first women chosen Distinguished Fellow by the American Economic Association, which honored her for her work in consumption economics and her contributions to the empirical tradition at Chicago. Dorothy Brady received a PhD in mathematics in 1933, and spent most of the next two decades working as a statistician and economist, much of the time employed as a home economist in the Department of Agriculture. In 1951, she joined the Department of Economics at the University of Illinois and in 1956 joined the Economics Department at the University of Chicago. Two years later, she left for the Wharton School. Rose Friedman worked with Dorothy Brady for two years (1941–1943) at the Bureau of Home Economics in Washington, and collaborated with Milton Friedman.

24Although the new opportunities for women in economics first emerged at the growing midwestern institutions that had welcomed the home economists of the interwar years, the more slowly growing eastern institutions eventually opened to women, albeit slowly. Anne Carter says she “never felt welcome” at Harvard, despite twenty years of employment, and eventually sought out a more encouraging atmosphere at Brandeis. Before 1966, there were no women on the economics faculty at Harvard. In 1966, Carter became the first female assistant professor after fifteen years as a research fellow. In 1970, she went to Brandeis as visiting professor and accepted a position as full professor in 1972.

25The 1950s and 1960s were transitional years for women in economics. Trained alongside men, in the same fields as men, many no longer sought the alternative employment offered by social work or home economics Departments. Yet, the economics departments seemed more prepared to employ them in support positions, as technical analysts, than as full faculty.

4. The 1970s and Beyond

26The dissatisfaction and ferment of the 1960s led to the organization of women in the economics profession in the 1970s. On 29 December 1971 a group of women calling itself the Women’s Caucus brought before the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association a series of resolutions designed to equalize opportunities for women in economics. These resolutions were intended to address the widely perceived inequities that Anne Carter recalled: differential access to graduate training, funding and job-market assistance, inequitable wages, and unequal promotion opportunities for women. The Women’s Caucus encouraged the Executive of the American Economic Association to recognize that the economics profession should be open to women and men. Women were to be encouraged by undergraduate and graduate instructors to study economics. They were to be admitted to graduate programs using the same criteria and awarded financial assistance according to the same terms as men. Once admitted, they were to be mentored and assisted to the same degree as male students, and to receive the same job-market assistance as men. Hiring committees were to use the same criteria for women as for men and, once hired, women were to be considered for tenure and promotion according to the same criteria as men. Salaries, departmental resources and fringe benefits were to be equal. Women were not to be discriminated against on the basis of family relationships with existing faculty members. The Executive created the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP), and passed a series of resolutions encouraging journal editors to appoint women to editorial boards, to encourage program chairs to include women in national meetings and to encourage regional associations to adopt similar measures. An open listing of all job opportunities was created, and a code of hiring procedures adopted. Childcare arrangements were to be encouraged at national meetings, and part-time working arrangements were to be encouraged to meet the needs of two-career families (Bartlett, 1999, 65). Then the newly created CSWEP set about its work.

27Its first task was to gather data. At 42 PhD-granting institutions that responded to a survey, 6% of economics faculty were women in 1971, and only 11% of PhDs and 13% of MAs were granted to women. Only 2% of full professors of economics were female (Bartlett, 1999, 65). At the 1972 annual meetings, two women presented papers, three chaired sessions and six were discussants. No member of the American Economic Association Executive was female. In 1972, CSWEP clearly had work to do.

28The most recent date for which CSWEP has data is 2009. 117 of 119 PhD-granting institutions responded to the questionnaire, and indicated that 32.9% of new PhDs were awarded to women, 28.4% of assistant professors are women and 9.7% of full professors are women. At non-PhD granting institutions, the numbers are significantly higher. These numbers reflect, at least in part, the efforts of CSWEP to encourage women economists, to create employment opportunities, and to mentor women economists. Just as significantly, they reflect the persistence of women like Anne Carter, like Margaret Reid and Hazel Kyrk, women like Edith Abbott and Jane Addams—women who saw economics as a way to better understand the social world in which we live and worked steadfastly to take their place in the profession.

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Notes

1 See https://www.aeaweb.org/committees/cswep/awards/ (accessed 24 October 2010).

2 Find entries on many of the women mentioned in this article in A Biographical Dictionary of Women Economists (2000), edited by Robert W. Dimand, Mary Ann Dimand and Evelyn L. Forget.

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Evelyn L. Forget, « American Women and the Economics Profession in the Twentieth century  », Œconomia, 1-1 | 2011, 19-30.

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Evelyn L. Forget, « American Women and the Economics Profession in the Twentieth century  », Œconomia [En ligne], 1-1 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2011, consulté le 20 novembre 2017. URL : http://oeconomia.revues.org/1807 ; DOI : 10.4000/oeconomia.1807

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Evelyn L. Forget

University of Manitoba, Canada

evelyn_forget@umanitoba.ca

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